Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Trekking: Up Chembra Peak

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge.

The first I saw of Chembra Peak was a dot on a map of Wayanad during our Calicut-Wayanad trip last month. We didn't have time that weekend to attempt a climb, but I knew we would be back soon enough. So when Anu excitedly included a trek up Chembra Peak in the itinerary of our Wayanad trip last weekend, I was very happy.

The best time to visit Chembra, we were told, was early morning. Get there around seven, and be done with the climb in three-four hours. The top half of the peak was shut for the summer, unfortunately - the authorities feared forest fires because of the heat. We could trek up half way, till the famously heart-shaped Love Lake, and then climb back down. 

The route to Chembra is off NH 212, a little after Kalpetta when you're travelling from the north. It was nine by the time we reached Chembra - we had left our homestay late, and had decided to have breakfast before climbing.  

The tickets have to be bought at a place lower down the slopes. The entry fee is Rs 500 for groups of up to ten. The treks are organized by the Vana Samrakshana Samiti, which seems to be a collaborative effort between the locals and the Forest Department. They provide a guide for each group. 

The road, which is reasonably good till the ticketing point, becomes pretty bad later on. We were told that the local Panchayat plans to fix it with this year's budget amount. Because of the condition of the road, it takes about twenty minutes to get from the ticketing point to the parking lot. From there on, we had to proceed on foot. 

The walk was beautiful from the first. Tea estates in general are quite pretty, of course. The road we were on was cut into the side of the hill. The tea plants ascended up the hill above us, and stood in rows below us. Other hills were visible in the distance. Some parts of the estate are as much as three centuries old - created by the first Britishers to come up here. They used to ascend the peak on their horses by an easier trail, and hunt animals on the slopes. 

After about a kilometer of easy walking, we arrived at the place where the climbing actually starts. They've built a sort of viewing point here. But we didn't ascend, as we were eager to start climbing.

The trek was very steep and tiring in the beginning, even though we were under the shade of some trees. Or perhaps it was that the guide over-estimated us and set an ambitious pace. Thankfully, he realized pretty quickly that we were desk-bound usually-inactive people, and slowed down considerably. He advised us to go slow and not tire ourselves out too much.

After some time, the trees thinned down, and the grasses began. Now we were climbing up in the hot sunshine, and we understood why we had been advised to start the climb early. But it wasn't too tiring, because there was a cool wind blowing. We ensured that we took plenty of breaks to drink water and enjoy the view. 

Step by step, the valley of Wayanad opened out below us. The guide pointed out Kalpetta, Vythiri, and all the other towns we had passed through. Dark green hills surrounded the valley on all sides. We seemed to be above cloud level, or maybe it was the mist that was covering some parts of the valley slopes here and there. Little black birds flew up and down the slopes around us, and we envied them their wings.

To reach Love Lake, we had to climb up one hill, pass through a flat valley, and then climb up some more. I was enjoying myself by this time, despite the warmth. It's so much more fun to be climbing up rather than down. Finding the right stone to put your foot on, feeling your own breath resounding in your ears, becoming aware of your body stretching itself - just feeling so very alive and so very young! I wanted to tell Quindon Tarver that he was wrong when he wrote the below lines. There are at least a few times when you do realize how young you are and how amazingly healthy your body is. (Touch wood!)

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth

Oh, never mind
You will never understand the power and the beauty of your youth
Until they've faded
But trust me, in twenty years
You will look back at photos of yourself
And recall in a way you can't grasp now
How much possibility lay before you
And how fabulous you really looked

Love Lake turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. If it were up to me, I would rename it Love Pond, because that was about how big it was. Possibly, the lake had shrunk because of the summer heat. 

It was pretty dirty and muddy too. The guide told us that the lake used to have a rock floor, and that the water used to be crystal clear and drinkable. But now the rock floor is covered under a foot of mud, because of erosion from the upper slopes. And it's become dirty because every tourist who climbs up insists on washing his/her feet and face in the water. (If you're planning a visit, PLEASE don't touch the water!)

We walked on a bit further from the lake-pond, and sat down on a bit of grass from where we could see the entire valley again. It was peaceful up there - Chembra Peak was above us on the left, and the valley opened itself out below us on the right. A cool wind dried the sweat off our faces, and no sounds broke the silence except our own voices, the whispering of the grass, and the chirping of birds.

The trek up the top half of Chembra Peak might soon be closed down for good. Apart from the risk of forest fires, there are six species of rare birds up there. Thirdly, the path from Love Lake to the peak is apparently more dangerous than the climb up the lower slopes. The guide told us that a girl had tripped last year and broken her jaw. He had to carry her all the way down the hill for medical aid.

The peak is open for trekking in the monsoons and the winters as well. When I heard that, I couldn't help but imagine how lush the place would look in the rains. I really want to go back during the rains, though I'm told the place will be rife with leeches then.


If you're planning a visit, here are the basics:
  • Water: Carry your own water - at least 1-2 litres per person
  • Food: There is a sort-of restaurant on the road up from the ticket point - an open bamboo building beneath the trees. We had our lunch there, but the food wasn't particularly great.
  • Clothing: Wear comfortable clothes - preferably sweatpants and shoes. 
  • The guide will come from the ticketing area to the parking lot in your car. It's a journey of about twenty minutes through bumpy roads, so you'll need to squeeze together and make room for one more person.
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